Very close to Panna Tiger Reserve and Navardehi Wildlife Sanctuary lies the proposed Bunder diamond mining project in Chhatarpur forests in Central India’s Madhya Pradesh (M.P.) state. In 2004, Rio Tinto discovered diamonds in this area spread over 971 hectares of Protected Forest Area (PA). Over a period of 14 years, Rio Tinto spent around $ 90 million and had plans to invest up to $ 500 million for commercial mining of diamonds in the area.
However, after much opposition by environmentalists resulting in deference of environment clearance by India’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), Rio Tinto abandoned the project in August 2016 citing “commercial considerations” and in February 2017 announced hand over of the Bunder diamond mine project and all its assets to the government.
The bone of contention of the project is wildlife and environment. These protected forest areas host endangered animals including tigers, leopards, sloth bears, vultures, blue bulls, rusty spotted cats, crocodiles, porcupines, deers etc. apart from more than 300 species of birds. Nearby Panna Tiger Reserve had a tumultuous history when it was devoid of any tigers in 2009 and with efforts of Wildlife Institute of India (WII), two tigresses were translocated to Panna. With conservation efforts, the reserve now boasts tiger population of 52 as of 2019.
- Besides, the project requires to cut around 492,000 trees!! London-based Nostromo Research in its 2013 report had clearly pointed out that because of felling of crucial species of trees, water scarcity in the surrounding area will further aggravate.
- Many villages and wildlife department had opposed the project during Rio Tinto time itself, citing tiger spotting at the zone.
- At least 1 village in Bunder area had rejected the proposal to mine their traditional forestlands falling under Forest Rights Act.
- In its 12th July 2016 meeting, FAC had reviewed “As per NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority) – project can potentially disrupt landscape character vis a vis tiger dispersal around Panna landscape…”. In 2016 Panna Tiger Reserve had only 26 tigers, while the number today stand at more than 50!!
- FAC had also mentioned that the revised proposal by Rio Tinto is highly dependent on surface extraction and will lead to permanent loss of high quality forest and suggested the company to explore possibility of underground mining.
Environmentalists may have heaved a sigh of relief in 2016 when FAC deferred the environment clearance of Bunder diamond mine project, but today they are flustered once again. According to news reports, M.P. state government has asked state-owned miner NMDC (National Mineral Development Corporation) to explore and mine Bunder diamond deposits, previously abandoned by Rio Tinto, to which NMDC has shown preliminary interest.
Reuters reported citing Neeraj Mandloi – Principal Secretary at M.P. state’s Mineral Resource Department, that NMDC may win a multi-billion dollar contract for mining at Bunder, estimated to contain 34.2 million of carats of diamonds. This time, the possibility of awarding the contract and environment clearance looks high as the state government last month awarded a small portion of the deposit to Essel Mining & Industries – part of Aditya Birla group, creating traction for the project.
NMDC already operates neighbouring Majhgawan mine in Panna, with a capacity of around 84,000 carats per year and has extracted about 1 million carats of diamonds till date. According to a company spokeperson, “NMDC is enthusiastic and looking forward to taking another mine in Madhya Pradesh”.
According to reports, “If the Bunder deposits prove real, Madhya Pradesh, the only diamond mining region in Asia, could also be among the world’s top ten diamond producers”. Exactly the same narrative was given by Rio Tinto years back, but it proved nothing but a hogwash.
If the open cast mine at Bunder is allowed, it will have a huge detrimental impact on environment, uprooting half a million trees, creating a havoc on the flora and fauna of the region and displacing high number of animal species.
When a diamond mine in South Africa hit upon an ancient archaeological site, the government swiftly took action and halted mining. Whereas, in case of Bunder it seems that FAC is inclined to go against its own decision made during Rio Tinto timeline, possibly reeling under political pressure, nullifying all the humongous conservation efforts made by India’s wildlife authorities and agencies. If it is going to give environment clearance to NMDC now, then why didn’t it give the same to Rio Tinto in the first place?
Destroying a wildlife corridor by mining in an eco-sensitive zone – very critical for tigers to survive who require vast expanse of land to roam and migrate, Bunder diamond mining project will be equivalent to ‘official poaching’ of more than 50 tigers. It is high time that the government should consider scrapping the project once and for all.